Surprising Playoff Predictions

Lately, I've had a lot of conversations with people about the Denver Nuggets.  There seems to be a common theme when talking to people that this is a very good team, but that they won't challenge for the title this year.  There is talk about what a good foundation or core the Nuggets have.  There is talk about the Nuggets needing a true center.  And I've heard the arguments, "well they lost to Orlando and Miami" ... "their stats our skewed because they've blown out Detroit, Charlotte and Toronto." 

But I haven't heard a lot of what I'm about to share with you and none backed up with the following conviction.

Most people are apprehensive or have a "wait-and-see" attitude.  I'm here to tell you that all objective evidence points to the fact that the Nuggets are an elite team, and the subjective evidence I've seen doesn't dispute that.  I'm speaking from a biased perspective, but those emotions and biases don't factor into the objective evidence I'm going to present. 

If you want a fair comparison of what this team is, look at Boston ... before their trade of Kendrick Perkins and others. Denver is a more athletic, deeper version of the Spurs, but they are not as well-coached.  Denver's blowout wins say just as much about this team as their losses to the strong Eastern Conference contenders.  Every single game contributes to the body of work that is the current Denver Nuggets.

Some of you may know that my buddy Matt and I built a model to predict NBA games.  You're probably saying, "anyone can build a model, but that doesn't really tell you anything."  Also, anyone can say they have a system and just subjectively guess outcomes (ESPN analysts make a living out of this). 

Here is some evidence of our system in action: backtesting from the 2005-2006 season and up through last season (2009-10), we're significantly better than AccuScore (whom the Wall Street Journal trusts to do their win probabilities).  This same work went into our predictions for the "Stumbling on Wins" contest last year to predict number of Nuggets playoff victories here:  

As I've mentioned before, point differential is a better predictor of future performance than record.  I don't lend much credence to the fact that the Miami Heat have a poor record against good opposition in close games.  Point differential measures, possession-by-possession, how much better a team is than the opposition.  Our system is quite a bit more advanced than point differential.  Basically, we're feeding better individual matchup inputs into each specific game matchup and then determining the likelihood of each of the possible playoff outcomes.

Last year, the combination of our individual matchup prediction system + the work we did to predict each series had the Nuggets as 44.8% underdogs to the Utah Jazz. With the most likely outcomes Utah to win in six games at 21.8% followed by Denver to win in seven games at 18.4%.  Basically, the most likely outcome was the Nuggets win two games - and Matt and I both sent that in as our entry.  

So, in anticipation of something special happening this year, I decided to run the most likely playoff matchups for you guys.  I immediately thought this team was going to do some great things, but I waited patiently for reasonable sample sizes before presenting this:

Scenario 1: Denver (5) at Oklahoma City (4).  In this scenario, we have Denver as a 71.83% chance to win the series.  The most likely outcomes are: Denver in 6 at 25.1%, Denver in 5 at 19%, and Denver in 7 at 14.1%.

Scenario 2: Oklahoma City (5) at Denver (4).  In this scenario, we have Denver to win the series 76.93% of the time with the most likely outcomes: Denver in 5 at 25.8%, Denver in 7 at 19.2%, Denver in 6 at 18.2%.

Scenario 3: Denver (6) at Dallas (3).  In this scenario, we have Denver winning 71.91% of the time.  The most likely outcomes are: Denver in 6 at 25.1%, Denver in 5 at 19% and Denver in 7 at 14.1%.  This looks very similar to the OKC scenario as OKC looks quite similar to Dallas, post Kendrick Perkins trade.

Scenario 4: Denver (7) at Los Angeles Lakers (2).  In this scenario, we have Denver winning the series 55.65% of the time, even with the Lakers' home court advantage.  Yes, you read that right - by all objective measures, Denver is currently a better team than the Lakers.  Most likely outcomes are Denver in 6 at 21.1%, Lakers in 7 at 17.6% and Nuggets in 7 at 13.8%.

Scenario 5: Denver (8) at San Antonio (1).  In this scenario, we have Denver winning 56.77% of the time.  In a vacuum, with no coaching adjustments, our post trade team looks BETTER than the Spurs even without home court.  The most likely outcomes are Denver in 6 at 21.4%, Spurs in 7 at 17.3% and Nuggets in 7 at 13.9%.

Scenario 6: Denver at New York Knicks.  In this scenario, Denver wins 87.2% of the time.  Gonna tip my hat to Melo for how he's handling the situation.

Yes, you just read that right.  Even without home court, we have the Nuggets favored in every single Western Conference series.  Since the trade, the Nuggets are 12-1 against the spread.  That means the smartest bookmakers in the world as well as the sharpest market makers are mis-pricing this team on a nightly basis.  We have the Nuggets as the best team in the Western Conference, followed by the Lakers.  The Spurs are very close behind the Lakers.  There is a huge quality disparity between he No. 1 and No. 2 seeds and the rest of the field.

Finally, since we're most likely to face the Thunder, I wanted to give you a look at the profiles of both teams pre- and post-trade.  Their version of the "Big 3" is Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.  Most people think Durant is their high usage guy, but Westbrook actually uses more plays than Durant and is super inefficient with those plays.

Here's a look at their four factors post-trade:


            offense | defense

eFG%: 51.09% | 47.23%

TOV%: 13.07% | 13.15%

ORR%: 25.9% | 71.7%

FT/FG: 24.3% | 20.07%


eFG%: 49.4% | 50.09%

TOV%: 12.8% | 13.011 %

ORR%: 26.89% | 74.06 %

FT/FG: 31.1% | 22.44%

So what happened to the Thunder post trade?  Well, their offense got slightly better.  The biggest thing is they identified their most glaring weakness, their paint defense and fixed it (with help from the Perkins trade).  They also became worse on the boards.

I've posted this before, but how about our Nuggets?

            offense | defense

eFG%: 53.12% | 48.11%

TOV%: 12.84% | 13.55%

ORR%: 25.34% | 80.12%

FT/FG: 23.74% | 20.35%


eFG%: 52.38% | 50.70%

TOV%: 13.18% | 12.18 %

ORR%: 23.15% | 74.75 %

FT/FG: 29.65% | 22.85%

So, what happened with our Nuggets?  They got better on offense and they improved their defense significantly.  Turnovers are down, they cause significantly more turnovers, and they are rebounding an unheard of 80% of available defensive rebounds.  They get to the free throw line less (expected without Melo and Chauncey Billups) and they're fouling less defensively.

There's still a lot of luck and variance inherent in the playoffs, but this team can play with anyone.  In fact, I'd go as far to say that this Nuggets team will contend for the championship ... this year.  While we're only now starting to get press from some of the smarter analysts, most people haven't caught on.  This includes the local press and a lot of our fans.  Embrace this team and get excited ... something special is happening here and you don't want to miss it. 



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